Wednesday, March 26, 2014

In Defense of Julius Peppers and his Supposedly Inconstant Motor

Here is a quote from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's story, by Tom Silverstein, on the Packers' signing of Julius Peppers earlier this offseason (bolding mine): 
And so Capers probably won't need to be too creative in finding ways to keep Peppers happy. But the Packers may have to find a way to keep Peppers motivated. He is a player who has been charged by some with not giving great effort on every play, but he did play an extraordinary number of snaps for the Bears and still managed to lead them in sacks most years.
JS guru Bob McGinn published an article a few days later with quotes from NFL scouts over the years, evaluating Peppers. Some highlights: "He disappeared on some plays but at least he showed up in each game. They used him well..." "He has the ability to turn it up to a level no one else has. If he takes a play off everyone is on his (expletive). The reality of it is you do not want to play that guy..." "His deal is, when he wanted to take over, it seemed like he could. But it's always been like this, rather than dominate a game. Some players that shouldn't have been able to, block him..." "He's a little off and on with his effort, as he's always been. I think it was a little worse [in 2013]".

The next day,  Tyler Dunne (also of the JS) had these things to say:

When the Green Bay Packers reconvene at 1265 Lombardi Ave., David Bakhtiari will have a question for Julius Peppers. The left tackle never understood these hot-and-cold, motor-related concerns himself. On the field, Peppers showed signs of slowing down last season. Scouts have ripped his selective effort.
It's hard to quarrel with McGinn's article, although one could argue that the scouts were influenced in part by the popular narrative I am about to describe. But Silverstein and Dunne's casual epithets--"motor-related concerns", "a player who has been charged by some with not giving great effort on every play" represent nothing less than a nearly thirteen-year smear of a journalistic narrative, a hearsay-driven, secondhand tarnishing of the man's character. And that bad journalism has perpetuated a narrative about Peppers that has stuck to him his entire career. He doesn't work hard. He takes plays off. Runs hot and cold. Questionable motor. Doesn't give great effort. The Journal Sentinel is no more to blame than half a dozen other media outfits, but they share the blame for perpetuating the following idea: Julius Peppers' talent is practically limitless, and any gap between his perceived talent and his actual production must be due to a fault in his character.

Let's go back to 2001. Peppers is a junior at the University of North Carolina, and until this season--his last in college--he was, in addition to being a star defensive end, a walk-on basketball player. At the time Tim Crothers wrote this article for Sports Illustrated, he had just given up basketball to focus full-time on football. And the ceiling for him, according to just about everyone, is limitless. "On a learning curve of zero to 10, Julius is still a five," says North Carolina coach John Bunting, who played 11 years at linebacker in the NFL. "That room for growth should be exciting to him and scary to everybody else." "Now that he's focused on football, I think he'll become a prototype for the next generation of defensive ends," says Illinois assistant coach Donnie Thompson, who coached Peppers at Chapel Hill for the last two seasons. "He's got all the ingredients to never get blocked."" Peppers will earn the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the nation's best defensive player, for his 2001 season. The awarding organization compares him to all-time great pass-rusher Lawrence Taylor. So do his coaches. This, mind you, before he ever reaches the NFL.

But buried just above those laudatory quotes is the following: "Peppers needs 12 sacks to break Greg Ellis's school career record (32.5), but he's more interested in expunging a rap that he doesn't go all out on every snap."

Expunging a rap?

He doesn't go all out?

First of all, it's crazy to think that every player gives maximum effort on every possible play. One need only turn on some TV tape or All-22 coaches' tape to understand this. But why is Peppers noticeable in this fashion? Where did the "rap" come from?

There is no evidence whatsoever in Crothers' article to back up this claim. Where did it come from? His coaches? Players? Did it come from watching Peppers' tape? Crothers doesn't say. And that's the thing. With the exception of McGinn and his scouts, no one ever bases this claim, in all its variations, on any actual evidence. It's all anecdotal. "Some have said." Hearsay. The narrative goes like this, and you saw it above: Peppers is the most freakishly talented defensive end prospect in a generation. Which generation? Doesn't matter. He can do absolutely anything. Then-Bears GM Jerry Angelo, in 2010: "[I don't] see any reason why [Peppers] can’t be the most dominant defensive lineman in the game this year. I’m looking for an MVP year out of Julius.” Panthers DE Mike Rucker, in 2006: "To be honest with you, if he keeps playing like this, I see the career sack record going down... The longer he plays, those records are just going to fall."  

He has freakish talent, they say. But it's always coupled to that malignant 'if'. It's the exact same thing people are saying today about Jadaveon Clowney, a potential No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft: he has all the physical ability in the world, but what about his work ethic? That's former Panthers GM Marty Hurney comparing Clowney to Peppers:
"What frustrates people sometimes is you don't necessarily see it play in and play out, but it's very rare to find players of that ability that can make game-changing plays like he can... What is being said about Clowney was being said exactly about Julius Peppers... The question was, does Julius Peppers play with the motor, does he have the energy?"
Here are a few other examples of this narrative.

Sports Illustrated, 2006: "There'll be no excuses from defensive end Julius Peppers this year, not with Maake Kemoeatu, the free agent from Baltimore, next to him. Peppers is so gifted an athlete that it's an upset when he doesn't lead the league in sacks--but he hasn't done it yet."

ESPN, 2009: Peppers, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 draft, is a freakish athlete who is Carolina's career sacks leader. But Peppers has also been criticized for inconsistent play -- he had a career-high 14½ sacks this past season, but a career-low 2½ the year before that.

Chicago Tribune, 2010: [Ex-Panthers coach John] Fox dispelled the notion that the Bears' new defensive end takes a lot of plays off. He said effort was not a problem for Peppers. "He trains and works hard," Fox said.

Most damning of all, Ross Tucker of Sports Illustrated in 2010: "Julius Peppers' work ethic may scare teams come NFL free agency".

He could have been a once-in-a-generation dominator, a first ballot Hall of Famer who we'd talk about for years to come. Now, such an end appears unlikely. His career has been marked by good seasons and bad seasons, big games and games where he was nowhere to be found. That's because Peppers is so gifted, he has gotten away with taking off more than his share of plays. He's not the only player who takes plays off. Far from it. Plenty of oversized defensive tackles do so to compensate for their lack of conditioning and the physical exertion that it takes to play the position. Some defensive linemen do so as a ploy, attempting to lull offensive linemen into complacency so they can beat them when it matters most. Wide receivers more or less do the same thing against cornerbacks; Randy Moss is a prime example of a skill guy who picks his spots. But Peppers takes plays off simply because he can get away with it.
That's the narrative. That he's so freaking talented--big, strong, huge arms, everything--but he is also lazy. He has never lived up to his potential. Note, as in most of the examples above, the lack of evidence. ESPN cites his 2.5-sack year in 2007*, but in his other six seasons at the time the article was written, he'd averaged over ten sacks per year. But everybody who covers Peppers, whether or not they have a casus belli, seems to bring the 'lazy' narrative up. And if most of them aren't as virulent as Tucker, those articles still acknowledge it in passing, the way Silverstein did, the way Crothers did, as something known by all that scarcely merits discussion to confirm its truth.

And yet everyone who actually works with Peppers says that's crap.

Here's David Bakhtiari from Dunne's article:

Through his two games against the defensive end — and all that Packers-Bears footage he studied — Peppers was a brawler... "I don't know what gets into him," Bakhtiari said, "but every time he plays us, he's getting after it. I want to ask him, 'What is it about going against the Green Bay Packers that you just bring it all the time?' I didn't get the chance to see him being hot and cold. He was steaming hot when he played us."
In that 2006 USA Today story, his Panthers teammates "gush so much about his greatness — and his agility, his flexibility, his work ethic, his energy — that the effusive praise almost seems cloying." Fox defended him in that 2010 article above, saying that 'effort was not a problem' and that "He trains and works hard". Former Panthers and current Packers DL coach Mike Trgovac told ESPN Wisconsin this, two years ago:
There have been times during Peppers’ career when his effort level has been questioned, but Trgovac insisted that Peppers was never lazy during his time coaching him. “Everybody said that about Julius, and the more we researched it, the more it wasn't true,” Trgovac said. “You've got to be careful sometimes. Sometimes somebody will give a guy a label and it'll get spread around like it did with Julius, and it wasn't true. Julius works his ass off and has been a great player. So you have to be careful. Sometimes a bad rumor gets started about a kid and it just keeps going and multiplying. So you have to make the decision for yourself.”
Israel Idonije, Bears teammate, had this to say: "Just watch him; watch the guy practice,” Idonije said. “He gives everything, and works hard from the beginning of practice until the end. And he’s not just doing his own thing. He’s doing what the coaches have asked."
Perhaps the most telling quotes came from an anonymous coach (one would imagine this is Trgovac again), from ESPN Chicago in 2010.
Now that he’s accomplished the change, Peppers wants to finally silence the critics. One NFL coach who worked with Peppers in Carolina, held the same beliefs about a perceived lack of effort from the defensive end.

“When we were evaluating before we got him, I thought that too. Then one of our coaches gave me tape from the [2002] combine,” the coach said. “He said watch this one first; then watch Julius. I watched the first guy, he’s straining through this drill, grunting, making all kinds of faces. Right after that, Peppers comes up and goes through the same drill [the coach imitates an effortless run]. Smooth. You look at your watch, and Peppers just smoked the time [of the player in the first drill]. He just makes it look so easy sometimes it looks like he’s not trying.”
Peppers laughed at the story, before agreeing and adding his spin.
“You know, I think sometimes certain players – and I don’t name names – but certain players have a certain haircut, they have certain sack celebrations. They draw a lot of attention to themselves. That stuff can make it seem like you’re playing hard when really, you’re playing [about the same] as everybody else,” Peppers said. “You’re just bringing that extra attention to yourself. Just because I go about it mild mannered and I don’t do all of that stuff, maybe that’s something to talk about, too. If you hear [the criticism] from a coach that’s a different story. But I have yet to hear that from a coach. People who say it and watch the game don’t really understand my responsibilities on certain plays. If my play is not to run and chase the ball, if my play is to stay backside, then I’ve got to stay backside. I’ve got to be disciplined. I can’t run across the field and chase stuff that’s not mine. I can’t help that stuff comes easy sometimes; easier than somebody else. So I deal with it and hopefully, after this year, people won’t say that anymore.”
Update: The Packers' Mike Daniels, after going through OTAs with Peppers, had this to say on 6/30: 
"Julius is 34 years old, and he outruns everybody in practice. I guess what I learned from him is that you have to bring it every day because he’s a guy who definitely does. At 34, playing defensive end, flying around faster than some defensive backs, linebackers, receivers, running backs --- everybody. I definitely learn from that.”


If somebody wants to go over the All-22 tape or the TV tape of Peppers and show me where he's loafing, where he's taking plays off, and actually prove this label, than I will shut up. I might even go back over the tape I have of him (all Packers-Bears games), when I have time, and do it myself. But until somebody does... until anybody, including the sportswriters--and these are mostly national publications, or regional publications that are relatively unfamiliar with Peppers, bringing this up, I'd like to note--until anybody backs this up with actual analysis rather than hearsay, I will stick to the interpretation of events that I have laid out for you: that lazy reporting and a popular, never-dispelled perception of Peppers as unfathomably talented, yet never having reached his potential, are responsible for his label as a lazy player. Not his actual effort level, not his production (he averages 9.875 sacks and 3.25 forced fumbles per season over his career), but the narrative. 

I think the narrative about him derives from a perception that the number of sacks collected equals pass-rushing ability; an underestimation of opposing teams' efforts to double-team, avoid and otherwise neutralize Peppers; a fascination with his athletic ability and a corresponding overestimation of it; the crazy idea that players should go 100% hard on every play; his high draft position; the pre-draft and throughout-his-career huge expectations for him; the tendency of reporters to retransmit a popular perception whether grounded or not; and the general ineptitude and shallow knowledge displayed by national-level sportswriters who have to sum up a particular player in a couple of sentences. Let's remember that he was being compared to Lawrence Taylor before he ever entered the NFL, expected to be the greatest player in a generation. He has instead been a very, very good player for a lot of years, and there's not a bit of shame in that.

*It's worth pointing out here that great pass-rushers can miss out on sacks through no fault of their own. Clay Matthews had six in 2011 because the other rushers on his team left or regressed, causing his own numbers to drop from 2010. Because Matthews has a reputation for giving great effort, however, no pundit or writer that I heard cited Matthews' desire as a reason for the decline.

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